Stowaways on New Horizons

Three not-so-official plaques made it all the way to Pluto.

Artist's view of New Horizons flying past Pluto

Bob Farquhar has never been a big one for rules. As a space mission designer, he’s known for his unorthodox ideas, like re-routing spacecraft to new destinations after they finish their primary jobs. So it’s not surprising that the 82-year-old veteran engineer ignored NASA protocols by including three personal plaques on NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft before its launch in 2006. The spacecraft passed Pluto yesterday, and is now more than three billion miles from Earth, heading into the Kuiper Belt.

Attached to New Horizons are nine officially authorized mementos. Farquhar, as an early member of the mission team at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, also managed to sneak his own, very unauthorized, items onboard. He tells the story in his 2011 book, Fifty Years on the Space Frontier.

As we approached the January 2006 launch date, Alan Stern, the Principal Investigator for the New Horizons mission, decided that he would place nine mementos on the spacecraft that would soon be on its way to the ninth planet. These mementos were: two U.S. flags, the state quarters of Maryland and Florida, a small piece of the first privately-owned manned spacecraft, SpaceShipOne, a CD-ROM with over 100,000 names of Pluto aficionados, another CD-ROM with numerous pictures of the spacecraft and spacecraft-mission development teams, a 1990 U.S. postage stamp (“Pluto: Not Yet Explored”), and a small amount of the ashes of Pluto’s discoverer, Clyde Tombaugh.

Of course, I was interested in adding some mementos of my own. Therefore, when I received an unsolicited offer from the lead spacecraft engineer, Steve Vernon, to put a few plaques on New Horizons, I readily accepted. I quickly decided to add three plaques because, when added to Alan Stern’s nine items, it produced my lucky number twelve…. One plaque recognizes pioneers of spaceflight mechanics, while the other two are very personal. Each plaque is a brass plate measuring roughly four by five inches.

Stowaways on New Horizons
One of three plaques placed on New Horizons by Bob Farquhar, two of them related to his wife.

I should mention that no one connected with the New Horizons project knew that these plaques had been placed on the spacecraft except for Steve Vernon and myself. Alan Stern learned of their existence a few days before launch, but it was too late to remove them because they were being used as balance weights….

Of course, placing personal mementos on a NASA spacecraft is strictly forbidden. Official commemorative articles, such as the nine items placed on New Horizons by Alan Stern, are OK provided that NASA approval is obtained beforehand. Naturally, I never bothered to ask NASA Management for approval of my three plaques because I knew that it would not be granted. However, I thoroughly enjoyed telling NASA managers what I had done post facto. The opportunity to disclose my unsanctioned placement of personal plaques on NASA spacecraft (two on NEAR and three on New Horizons) came in 2007 when I gave the keynote presentation at NASA’s Discovery@15 conference. I showed photos of all the plaques, and their placement on NEAR and New Horizons. All of NASA’s managers from the Discovery and New Frontiers programs were in the audience, and they expressed great dismay and outrage that I had contemptuously ignored NASA policy, but there was very little that they could do to reverse my fait accompli because the NEAR plaques were now firmly settled on Eros, and the New Horizons plaques were on their way to Pluto and out of the Solar System.

A public affairs spokesman at the Applied Physics Laboratory, confirms that the plaques are, indeed, on New Horizons.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.